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Design for Default: How to Optimize Your Daily Decisions

Design for Default: How to Optimize Your Daily Decisions

You might assume that humans buy products because of what they are, but the truth is that we often buy things because of where they are. For example, items on store shelves that are at eye level tend to be purchased more than items on less visible shelves.

In the best-selling book Nudge (Kindle | Audiobook), authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein explain a variety of ways that our everyday decisions are shaped by the world around us. The effect that eye-level shelves have on our purchase habits is just one example.

Here’s another: The ends of aisles are money-making machines for retailers. According to data cited by the New York Times, 45 percent of Coca-Cola sales come specifically from end-of-the-aisle racks.

Here’s why this is important: Something has to go on the shelf at eye level. Something has to be placed on the rack at the end of the aisle. Something must be the default choice. Something must be the option with the most visibility and prominence. This is true not just in stores, but in nearly every area of our lives. There are default choices in your office and in your car, in your kitchen and in your living room.

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My argument is this: If you optimize the default decisions in your life, rather than accepting whatever is handed to you, then it will be easier to live a better life. Let’s talk about how to do that right now.

Design for Default

Although most of us have the freedom to make a wide range of choices at any given moment, we often make decisions based on the environment we find ourselves in.

For example, if I wanted to do so, I could drink a beer as I write this article. However, I am currently sitting at my desk with a glass of water next to me. There are no beers in sight. Although I possess the capability to get up, walk to my car, drive to the store, and buy a beer, I probably won’t because I surrounded by easier alternatives – namely, drinking water. In this case, taking a sip of water is the default decision, the easy decision.

Consider how your default decisions are designed throughout your personal and professional life. For example:

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  • If you sleep with your phone next to your bed, then checking social media and email as soon as you wake up is likely to be the default decision.
  • If you walk into your living room and your couches and chairs all face the television, then watching television is likely to be the default decision.
  • If you keep alcohol in your kitchen, then drinking consistently is more likely to be the default decision.

Of course, defaults can be positive as well.

  • If you keep a dumbbell next to your desk at work, then pumping out some quick curls is more likely to be the default decision.
  • If you keep a water bottle with you throughout the day, then drinking water rather than soda is more likely to be the default decision.
  • If you place floss in a visible location (like next to your toothbrush), then flossing is more likely to be the default decision.

Researchers have referred to the impact that environmental defaults can have on our decision making as choice architecture. It is important to realize that you can be the architect of your choices. You can design for default.

How to Optimize Your Default Decisions

Here are a few strategies I have found useful when trying to design better default decisions into my life:

Simplicity. It is hard to focus on the signal when you’re constantly surrounded by noise. It is more difficult to eat healthy when your kitchen is filled with junk food. It is more difficult to focus on reading a blog post when you have 10 tabs open in your browser. It is more difficult to accomplish your most important task when you fall into the myth of multitasking. When in doubt, eliminate options.

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Visual Cues. In the supermarket, placing items on shelves at eye level makes them more visual and more likely to be purchased. Outside of the supermarket, you can use visual cues like the Paper Clip Method or the Seinfeld Strategy to create an environment that visually nudges your actions in the right direction.

Opt-Out vs. Opt-In. There is a famous organ donation study that revealed how multiple European countries skyrocketed their organ donation rates: they required citizens to opt-out of donating rather than opt-in to donating. You can do something similar in your life by opting your future self into better habits ahead of time. For example, you could schedule your yoga session for next week while you are feeling motivated today. When your workout rolls around, you have to justify opting-out rather than motivating yourself to opt-in.

Designing for default comes down to a very simple premise: shift your environment so that the good behaviors are easier and the bad behaviors are harder.

Designed For You vs. Designed By You

Default choices are not inherently bad, but the entire world was not designed with your goals in mind. In fact, many companies have goals that directly compete with yours (a food company may want you to buy their bag of chips, while you want to lose weight). For this reason, you should be wary of accepting every default as if it is supposed to be the optimal choice.

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I have found more success by living a life that I design rather than accepting the standard one that has been handed to me. Question everything. You need to alter, tweak, and shift your environment until it matches what you want out of life. Yes, the world around you shapes your habits and choices, but there is something important to realize: someone had to shape that world in the first place. Now, that someone can be you.

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

Featured photo credit: Yohari Garcia Martnez via flickr.com

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The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

It’s a depressing adage we’ve all heard time and time again: An increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

Put another way by Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics,

“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

In other words, just because our computers are getting faster, that doesn’t mean that that we will have an equivalent leap in productivity. In fact, the opposite may be true!

New York Times writer Matt Richel wrote in an article for the paper back in 2008 that stated, “Statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.”

There’s a strange paradox when it comes to productivity. Rather than an exponential curve, our productivity will eventually reach a plateau, even with advances in technology.

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So what does that mean for our personal levels of productivity? And what does this mean for our economy as a whole? Here’s what you should know about the productivity paradox, its causes, and what possible solutions we may have to combat it.

What is the productivity paradox?

There is a discrepancy between the investment in IT growth and the national level of productivity and productive output. The term “productivity paradox” became popularized after being used in the title of a 1993 paper by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.

In his paper, Brynjolfsson argued that while there doesn’t seem to be a direct, measurable correlation between improvements in IT and improvements in output, this might be more of a reflection on how productive output is measured and tracked.[1]

He wrote in his conclusion:

“Intangibles such as better responsiveness to customers and increased coordination with suppliers do not always increase the amount or even intrinsic quality of output, but they do help make sure it arrives at the right time, at the right place, with the right attributes for each customer.

Just as managers look beyond “productivity” for some of the benefits of IT, so must researchers be prepared to look beyond conventional productivity measurement techniques.”

How do we measure productivity anyway?

And this brings up a good point. How exactly is productivity measured?

In the case of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gain is measured as the percentage change in gross domestic product per hour of labor.

But other publications such as US Today, argue that this is not the best way to track productivity, and instead use something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). According to US Today, TFP “examines revenue per employee after subtracting productivity improvements that result from increases in capital assets, under the assumption that an investment in modern plants, equipment and technology automatically improves productivity.”[2]

In other words, this method weighs productivity changes by how much improvement there is since the last time productivity stats were gathered.

But if we can’t even agree on the best way to track productivity, then how can we know for certain if we’ve entered the productivity paradox?

Possible causes of the productivity paradox

Brynjolfsson argued that there are four probable causes for the paradox:

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  • Mis-measurement – The gains are real but our current measures miss them.
  • Redistribution – There are private gains, but they come at the expense of other firms and individuals, leaving little net gain.
  • Time lags – The gains take a long time to show up.
  • Mismanagement – There are no gains because of the unusual difficulties in managing IT or information itself.

There seems to be some evidence to support the mis-measurement theory as shown above. Another promising candidate is the time lag, which is supported by the work of Paul David, an economist at Oxford University.

According to an article in The Economist, his research has shown that productivity growth did not accelerate until 40 years after the introduction of electric power in the early 1880s.[3] This was partly because it took until 1920 for at least half of American industrial machinery to be powered by electricity.”

Therefore, he argues, we won’t see major leaps in productivity until both the US and major global powers have all reached at least a 50% penetration rate for computer use. The US only hit that mark a decade ago, and many other countries are far behind that level of growth.

The paradox and the recession

The productivity paradox has another effect on the recession economy. According to Neil Irwin,[4]

“Sky-high productivity has meant that business output has barely declined, making it less necessary to hire back laid-off workers…businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.”

This means that more and more companies are trying to do less with more, and that means squeezing two or three people’s worth of work from a single employee in some cases.

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According to Irwin, “workers, frightened for their job security, squeezed more productivity out of every hour [in 2010].”

Looking forward

A recent article on Slate puts it all into perspective with one succinct observation:

“Perhaps the Internet is just not as revolutionary as we think it is. Sure, people might derive endless pleasure from it—its tendency to improve people’s quality of life is undeniable. And sure, it might have revolutionized how we find, buy, and sell goods and services. But that still does not necessarily mean it is as transformative of an economy as, say, railroads were.”

Still, Brynjolfsson argues that mismeasurement of productivity can really skew the results of people studying the paradox, perhaps more than any other factor.

“Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.

On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

Perhaps the paradox isn’t a death sentence for our productivity after all. Only time (and perhaps improved measuring techniques) will tell.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Reference

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